Selfishness is a survival skill. Infants are the most selfish creatures on the planet. If they weren’t, the species would die out.
As children mature, they become more considerate of others. But in some ways, children have it right and we adults have it wrong. We’re supposed to think of our own needs. Self-sacrifice is not a virtue – it’s hazardous to your health.
People attribute lots of behaviors to low self-esteem that are really self-sacrifice disguised as virtue. For instance, when a person, especially a woman, stays with a philandering spouse or is trapped in an abusive relationship, people will often say, “It’s because she doesn’t love herself enough.”
That may be true in some situations, but it’s not always the case. Often it’s ego that keeps women stuck in bad situations. They view themselves as indispensable, and fall under the spell of their own God complexes. They believe they are the only one who can take care of everything and everyone. They worry that if they leave, everyone – including the abusive spouse – would fall apart. In these cases, it’s hard for a woman to convince herself that it’s okay to leave.
My own mother was one of those women. She stayed in an unhappy marriage for the sake of her children, but never stopped being bitter about it. When I would complain about unreliable babysitters, my mother would always say,
“Hmpf. I never thought anyone could raise my kids as well as I could.”
My mother supported my decision to divorce my husband, but she wasn’t sympathetic to my single mother complaints about my workload. She had taught her daughters to be independent, but independence wasn’t supposed to occur at the expense of the family. She never explained to me how I was supposed to manage having a full-time job and being a full-time mom. When I complained that my ex wasn’t shouldering his fair share of the parenting load, she all but asked me, who would trust a man to raise a child, anyway?
I remember my mother spending the day cleaning, the afternoon cooking, the night cleaning and doing laundry, all fueled by the three or four cups of coffee she drank every day, including at night. She would stay up until 2 am and get back up by 6 or 7 am to see us off to school. I didn’t see the toll it took on her when I was a child, but I have often wondered, since her passing, whether or not she just physically burned herself out.
Mothers are often guilty of trying to be Superwomen. We get used to sacrificing ourselves for our children and sublimating our needs to theirs. Writer Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser referred recently to “that lack of control over the quiet, the way others really do come first—always” as her biggest parenting challenge. I agree.
For women, and especially mothers, learning to be more selfish is critical. Call it self-protection or self-interest rather than selfishness, if that makes it easier, but put yourself and your needs first on occasion, even ahead of the kids. You’ll be a better person for doing so.